What Seamus Heaney Taught Me

Seamus Heaney.jpg

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Seamus Heaney, 1977

Seamus Heaney used to say that the poetry-writing hours of a poet’s day were the easy part; it was what to do with the rest of the day that was a challenge. He decided early on that teaching was something honorable to do with the rest of the day. He took his teaching very seriously, regarding it as a craft, something to be worked at, much like writing.

I took two courses with Seamus early on in his stint at Harvard, long before he received the Nobel Prize, and before he took over from Robert Fitzgerald as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. I remember his fortieth birthday, so the first class must have been during the spring of 1979. He arrived that day with a bulging briefcase, of empty bottles of Guinness, as he showed me later that afternoon.

Seamus believed that much of the craft of writing could be taught. “I can help you with that part,” he told us. “The other part is up to you.” He was a calm, unassuming presence in class, not the “great poet” at all, cautiously offering suggestions in the mode of “what if?” Mostly what he suggested was what he called surgery. “This poem could use a little surgery,” he would say. “What if you cut the first stanza?” Or, “Isn’t that last line a bit grandiloquent for the occasion? Perhaps you could do without it.”

For help with the “other part,” the un-teachable part, he recommended a book called something like The Poet’s Work, but the only time I heard him refer to it was to summon Lorca’s notion of duende, a mysterious dark fire of inspiration, a demonic rage, which, as I remember, Lorca associated with bullfighting and flamenco. When Seamus heard that I was working on Emily Dickinson he said, “Well, she had duende, didn’t she?”

He didn’t try to turn his students into copies of himself. He rarely mentioned his own poems. Instead, he tried to find poets further along the path that the student seemed to be following. One day, I brought in a poem about a couple skipping stones on a cow-pond. I remember only one line: “Mine skipped three times and burrowed in.” It wasn’t the deliberate cows (the adjective comes back) or the pond that interested him, even though his own poems are full of such pastoral props. It was the notion of divination, of trying to guess the future by how the stones struck the water. “You might look at Robert Graves’s ‘The Straw,’” he murmured, which begins:

Peace, the wild valley streaked with torrents,
A hoopoe perched on his warm rock. Then why
This tremor of the straw between my fingers?

Looking at that tercet now, I suddenly remember Heaney’s most famous lines, from “Digging”: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests.” The pen as divining rod.

And yet, in the rest of Graves’s poem, the influence, if it is influence, seems to flow the other way, as it so often does with great poets. (“For genius,” as Melville said, “all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.”) The final line of “The Straw,” after some typical Gravesian highflying stuff about unrequited love, is pure Heaney:

Were she at ease, warmed by the thought of me,
Would not my hand stay steady as this rock?
Have I undone her by my vehemence?

Heaney seemed to be in a poetic lull around then, around 1980, as he turned forty and looked back, fondly and ruefully, on the guttural outpouring of poems like “Broagh” and “Anahorish,” poems that had seemingly happened to him, back when duende was his for the asking or the taking. He read some poems at Mount Holyoke, where I was teaching, it must have been around 1987, and after one of them he said, “I wrote that when I was still a good poet.”

Some poems were like drawings, he used to say, gesturing with a quick downward zigzagging stroke of the pen, and some were like paintings. You were lucky if the poem came quickly, all in one piece. He would often quote Frost, from “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

It was during those years, the years of the Troubles in Ireland, that he was remaking himself, as Yeats said in “Adam’s Curse” all poets have to do. He was reading Eastern European poets and the essays of Terrence des Pres, especially an essay on Bertolt Brecht called “Into the Mire,” which came out in 1981. He seemed to divine that he couldn’t escape the mire, and that his poems might, henceforth, require more laboring, more layering, more painting.


What came of that labor was the wonderful sequence of books, firmly balancing the political—what he called the claims of the Republic of Conscience—and the private life, from Station Island to The Spirit Level and District and Circle. In “The Birch Grove,” he trumpeted the claims of the domestic sphere, “walled off like the baths or bake-house/ Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa,” shared with his wife, Marie, and clinched with a quotation from his friend and fellow Nobelist Joseph Brodsky:

Red brick and slate, plum tree and apple retain
Their credibility, a CD of Bach is making the rounds
Of the common or garden air. Above them a jet train
Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper.
“If art teaches us anything,” he says, trumping life
With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private.”

There should have been more such poems, more such books.

He seemed always older, wiser—the Master, as we called him. My first thought when I heard the news of his passing was, “Only seventy-four! My God, he was one of us!”

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